Certain skincare tips are universal; everyone should use sunscreen, and we should all wash our faces. But we would wager just as many, if not more, are not one-size-fits-all. How you care for your skin can differ quite a lot depending on your skin type, skin concerns, lifestyle, and skin tone. And it’s important that you learn about skincare through the lens of what will work for you—not what suits everyone else. Here, we’re focusing specifically on skincare for dark skin tones. The amount of melanin your skin has not only controls your skin color, it also impacts how your skin responds to aggressors, the products you need in your routine, and which skincare trends you should or shouldn’t participate in.
To bring you the facts about skincare for Black women and people with darker skin tones, we spoke with Kiehl’s consulting dermatologist, Dr. Michelle Henry. She offered us 10 of the biggest skincare tips for dark skin that she, as a board-certified derm and a woman of color herself, shares with her patients and thinks you should know, too.
1. Do What You Can To Prevent Discolorations
“Whenever I’m creating a skincare regimen for a person of color, I always think about hyperpigmentation, hyperpigmentation, hyperpigmentation,” shares Dr. Henry. Skin discolorations are known to be a significant concern for those with darker skin, and this is aligned with what Dr. Henry sees in her own practice. It’s one of the top concerns among the women and men of color that come into her office.
This goes back to the melanin we mentioned earlier. Discolorations appear when something triggers the skin to make extra melanin. This “something” could be as small as a pimple or a bug bite. And while these occurrences could cause a dark spot on anyone’s skin, it’s an especially common reaction when you have a darker skin tone. According to Dr. Henry, almost any damage—even a single scratch—to dark skin will cause hyperpigmentation. For this reason, it’s important to do what you can to prevent these discolorations and also be prepared for when they do show up.
In patients of color, Dr. Henry notes that she treats acne aggressively because she knows that although over time it will eventually go away, the resulting hyperpigmentation and scarring can last. To put it into perspective: While acne may improve in four to six weeks with proper treatment, a spot that is a few shades darker than your skin tone may take up to a year to fade.
Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Solution
If you have an active breakout, we recommend using Blue Herbal Spot Treatment. The formula contains 1.5% salicylic acid, and it targets breakouts to help your skin appear clearer. When you do see discolorations and post-acne marks, Dr. Henry suggests using Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Corrector, which is formulated with salicylic acid, activated C (a stabilized form of vitamin C), and peony extract. This face serum visibly reduces dark spots, including those caused by acne, age, and UV exposure. Over time, it diminishes the number and intensity of dark spots and skin looks brighter with a more even tone. Apply it twice daily, in the morning and at night, for 12 weeks.
2. Turn To Products Formulated With The Right Ingredients
What you put on your skin matters. At Kiehl’s, we make an effort to use only the most effective ingredients in our formulas. Below, find Dr. Henry’s top skincare ingredients for those with dark skin tones, which you can find in Kiehl’s products.
Vitamin C: This antioxidant is in some of our favorite Kiehl’s products, and Dr. Henry is on the same page about its importance. She says, “For hyperpigmentation, I love vitamin C—it’s fantastic.” Vitamin C is known to help prevent post-inflammatory discolorations and can be used as a depigmenting agent. Introduce your skin to the ingredient with Powerful-Strength Vitamin C Serum. It’s a concentrate that boosts radiance and smooths your skin’s texture, including visibly improving fine lines and wrinkles.
Dr. Henry also recommends other antioxidants for dark skin tones, including vitamin E and resveratrol. Read more about these powerhouse ingredients in our article What Are Antioxidants?.
Retinol: Per Dr. Henry, almost everyone can benefit from using retinol. Retinoids are associated with anti-aging and are popularly used for their anti-wrinkle properties. In the case of dark skin types, this holds true, but it’s extra important to start slowly and use as directed. She encourages patients to begin by using retinol, including over-the-counter formulas, twice a week. Based on how your skin responds, you can gradually build up to a higher frequency.
Lactic acid: When it comes to acids, Dr. Henry likes lactic for dark skin tones, adding, “It’s not going to be a super-strong concentration, but with time, it will do the job in a safe way.” She recommends Clearly Corrective Accelerated Clarity Renewing Ampoules (and uses them in her own routine). They’re a 14-day treatment formulated with a blend of glycolic, lactic, and phytic acids. As for what they do, the ampoules visibly even skin tone and address dullness—they’re clinically demonstrated to leave skin with a 33% brighter appearance in two weeks.* Use them to amplify your current skincare routine or address visible sun damage. For a more radiant-looking complexion, pair them with the Clearly Corrective serum.
*Based on expert grading in a 2-week clinical study of 85 panelists in Brazil
Hyaluronic acid: “It’s all about hydration,” reveals Dr. Henry. Dark-skinned patients often come in with concerns of ashy-looking skin, which makes hydrating humectant ingredients like hyaluronic acid particularly helpful. For lightweight hydration, try Vital Skin-Strengthening Hyaluronic Acid Super Serum. It contains 11kDa hyaluronic acid, which is our smallest form of hyaluronic acid and capable of penetrating eight skin layers deep.
Glycerin: Other humectants (ingredients that attract and bind water to help hydrate your skin) like glycerin are also good to incorporate into a skincare routine for dark skin. Dr. Henry calls them out as being especially useful in the winter, when an ashen appearance may be more prominent. The Kiehl’s Ultra Facial line features formulas with glycerin, including our best-selling Ultra Facial Cream, the newly-renovated Ultra Facial Oil-Free Gel Cream (ideal for oily skin types), and Ultra Facial Cleanser.
As for whether there are ingredients to steer clear of altogether, Dr. Henry says that isn’t the case. Your skin tone doesn’t rule out specific ingredients, but it does affect the concentration she recommends you use. She shares, “The poison is in the dose.” This is particularly relevant for exfoliating ingredients like glycolic acid.
3. Get Serious About Sun Protection
When you’re pale, you’re (rightfully) told all the time to be careful in the sun because you’ll burn—or worse. What’s often assumed, however, is that those with darker skin don’t need to be equally as cautious. Past studies have found that 65% of African Americans never wear sunscreen. Dr. Henry stresses that it’s a misconception that darker skin types don’t need sunscreen. Everyone does. Not only can you get skin cancer regardless of your skin tone, but on average, people of color have a worse prognosis. Make sure your daily skincare routine includes a broad-spectrum sunscreen like Super Fluid Daily UV Defense SPF 50+. We love that it has a lightweight formula and a matte finish, plus it also defends against the effects of pollution.
4. Know The Signs Of Sun Damage
Actively shielding your skin with sunscreen (and taking other protective measures, like wearing a hat and seeking shade when possible) is the first step in regards to sun protection. Next comes recognizing damage when it does occur. This allows you to better care for your skin and review whether it’s necessary to adjust what you’ve been doing. When you have a dark skin tone, you may not turn bright red and immediately know that you were in the sun for too long; you have to watch for certain signs.
Dr. Henry recommends that you pay attention to whether your skin tone changes and focus on keeping it the same shade year-round. She notes, “Dark skin tans and tans very quickly.” Besides getting darker, it’s also important to know that dark skin types do burn. The difference will be in how a burn presents. Painful, red skin isn’t the only indicator; fine peeling is also a sign of sunburn that people overlook. This means when you’ve spent a long day at the beach, and your nose starts to peel, don’t disregard it and assume your skin is simply dry. It could very well be a burn.
After too much sun exposure, drink extra water and moisturize your skin with a soothing product formulated with aloe vera. We recommend Calendula Petal-Infused Calming Mask, which provides a refreshing surge of cooling hydration and helps reduce signs of distress.
5. Address Signs Of Aging Around The Eyes
“We all age; we just age differently,” are wise words from Dr. Henry. In her patients with darker skin tones, one of the biggest signs of aging is puffy eyes. She notes that her practice sees a lot of eye concerns in general, including dark circles. Our best advice that pertains to the eye area may not be shocking, but it is true: Use eye cream. You can address the appearance of multiple concerns at once with Powerful-Strength Dark Circle Reducing Vitamin C Eye Serum, which visibly reduces both brown and blue dark circles and instantly smooths and hydrates your under-eye area. The formula with 10% pure vitamin C and hyaluronic acid also works for all skin types (even sensitive skin).
Kiehl’s Tip: It’s key to treat your skin with kindness, and that includes being gentle when using your products. We put a greater emphasis on this when applying products around the eye area because the skin is extra delicate. Take half a pea-sized amount of eye cream between your ring fingers, rub them together to break the formula down, and carefully tap it around your eye and along the orbital bone.
6. Don’t Assume Your Skin Isn’t Sensitive
Speaking of sensitive skin, it’s possible that you have it. While you may not see visible redness, which is often a sign of sensitivity, your skin can still be reactive and become easily irritated. Dr. Henry stresses that with skincare for Black women and men, you should not only use your eyes to assess your skin, but also take note of whether it feels uncomfortable or tighter than normal.
Pay attention to your skin, and if you think it may be sensitive, be sure to use products that suit your skin type. One formula we recommend for those with sensitive skin is Calendula Herbal Extract Toner. It cleanses without using harsh or synthetic drying agents. The alcohol-free toner with calendula and allantoin also gently soothes and refreshes the skin.
7. Steer Clear Of At-Home Devices
When you’re spending all your time at home, possibly forgoing your normal beauty treatments, it can be tempting to embrace the world of at-home devices. The thing is, that may not be the best decision. Dr. Henry cautions against using at-home laser hair removal tools, which typically aren’t safe for darker skin types. She says, “I’ve been seeing a lot of patients coming in complaining about that sort of thing because people are trying to replicate procedures [at home] that they can get in the office.”
As for in-office laser hair removal, in case you were wondering, it can be done on patients with darker skin. With that said, it’s essential to find practices with the correct laser that use the right parameters. You should also make sure the person performing the procedure is specifically experienced with laser hair removal for dark skin.
8. Be Wary Of DIY Concoctions
Homemade skincare products may trend on Pinterest, but they don’t all get the expert seal of approval. Dr. Henry warns that you need to be careful with DIY trends as mixing up an at-home concoction can result in rashes and burns. With darker skin types, Dr. Henry points out that they can exacerbate hyperpigmentation. For that reason, it’s best to stick with well-studied commercial products.
9. Take a Gentle Approach To Exfoliation
“You must be careful with really aggressive exfoliative regimens,” Dr. Henry warns. “Because in darker skin, if you have an ‘oops,’ you end up with hyperpigmentation.” Turn to gentle exfoliators and don’t overdo it. Dr. Henry encourages “starting low and going slow.” This refers to using chemical exfoliants with low concentrations and not applying them too often. Instead, you should gradually build up use over time. We’re fans of Clearly Corrective Brightening & Smoothing Moisture Treatment, which has exfoliating glycolic acid in its formula and reduces the appearance of discolorations and rough texture.
10. Advocate For Yourself With Your Derm
When you’re trying to find a dermatologist that’s a good fit for you and your skin, don’t shy away from asking questions. You can, and should, ask if your dermatologist sees a lot of patients of color and whether they’re experienced with your skin type. It can be as simple as asking, “Do you see patients like me?” In some cases, they may not and can help refer you to another doctor that’s a better fit. Never feel that it’s taboo to ask. Dr. Henry’s final piece of advice on skincare for dark skin is to “advocate for yourself and don’t be shy.”